Opinion

Opinion: Life is better with a Titan

As Titanfall’s charming live action trailer (in a great piece of marketing, which you can watch here) observes and I can’t disagree. Developer are Respawn Entertainment – many of whom ushered in the dominance of the Multiplayer Shooter with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – have redefined a stagnating genre, and in doing so have recaptured my love for compettative shooters.

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 Stand by for Titanfall:

There’s a sense of enjoyment that underscored my time with Titanfall (appealing to my inner child, Titanfall gives each player a jetpack and their own two storey tall mech – the eponymous Titans of the games title), that’s characterised by player experimentation.

This ethos stems from the fundemental change Titanfall makes to player movement. The parkour abilities that the jump-pack allows feels like a combination of the Nano suits strength ability from Crysis (which allowed players to jump higher and further) and the exhilarating mobility of Mirrors Edge. The biggest obstacle is learning to read the environment, ignoring the conditioning from years of playing competitive shooters. See a second storey window? Jump through it or chain wall runs together to quickly cross a map (even after hours of play I was finding new ways to utilise these mechanics – I had a moment of realisation when I found out that instead of capturing an objective in Hardpoint from the ground, I could hang from the ceiling), this makes for fast paced and i that’ve map traversal. The level design is brilliant (the vibrant maps eschew the usual grey/brown colour palette of modern shooters, transporting players to the far distant planets of the frontier. On a dessert planet huge alien creatures lumber in the background and fly overhead, swooping to carry off grunts and as an interstellar battle rages in a planets orbit snow falls delicately on giant turrets that can turn the tide of a match – one of the few interactable environmental objects), making use of verticality, bottlenecks and open areas – it’s quite a statement to say that each map makes any play style a viable option – maps strike a pitch perfect balence between pilot and Titan gameplay.

Set on the fringes of the solar system, Titanfall’s setting seems ripe for exploration. Every aspect of the games design – from the socio-political conflict between the IMC (Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation) and the Militia, to the Titans themselves (for me such an intriguing concept) – offer tantalising glimpses at a larger fiction, that’s only briefly touched upon in the games multiplayer campaign. Incorporating narrative elements – like NPC characters, ingame cutscenes and expository ingame dialogue – into the nine campaign missions (somewhat like Brink) to create an intergrated experience, ultimately falls short of its ambitions. At its best Titanfall blurs the line between narrative and emergent gameplay – one of my favourite moments happened in the midst of an intense firefight with two enemy Titans when I recieved a video communication from an NPC character on my HUD. Unfortunately these moments can easily be missed amongst the fast paced action on screen. The barebones story gives each match context – these snippets of narrative made me feel I was working towards an overarching goal and helped get me more invested in whether my team won or lost. Unlike in Killzone 3’s multiplayer mode Operations, Titanfall’s story doesn’t change depending on the outcome of a match- something I feel is a missed opportunity.

Titanfall’s gameplay – at its heart – is all about empowering the player, whether they’re newcomers or veterans alike. The best example of this is the Titans themselves. The Titan replaces the standard killstreak rewards found in most compettative shooters and the ability to customise them (though not to the extent of the Front Mission or Armoured Core series) – much like you would with your character – with different chassis, weapons and abilities (in a neat touch you can also customise your Titans AI) makes each players Titan feel personal to them (I felt so attached to my Titan I even gave him a name). By not restricting the Titans use based on on player skill – instead of accumulating a number of consecutive kills, each players Titan can be called in after a certain amount of time has elapsed – ensures each player gets to experience taking control of a Titan from their first match (this mechanic still benifits veteran players as the more kills you get, the faster your Titan becomes available). There’s a sense of unrivalled anticipation that accompanies the words ‘Stand by for Titanfall’ and it’s always satisfying to see the familiar smoke trails as your Titan drops in from orbit. The Titans could easily have felt overpowered but Respawn have created mechs that feel at once both very powerful and uniquely vulnerable (I haven’t piloted a mech this satisfying since Metal Gear Rex in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots), A single pilot rodeoing your Titan – jumping on its back and attacking its power source – can cause a huge amount of damage. I’ve had matches where my Titan has survived an entire round and others where it’s been destroyed in minutes.

There are two other gamplay mechanics that I feel deserve a mention for bringing a sense of inclusion the the compettative multiplayer. Titanfall’s matches accommodate up to twelve players, these six man teams are accompanied by AI teammates called Grunts. Marrying PVP and weaker AI opponents makes Titanfall more accessible for new players (especially as killing Grunts counts towards player objectives). The main function of the Grunts is to empower players – running into a room and killing four Grunts (or the tougher robotic Spektors) induces the same endorphin fueled rush as if they were enemy players. Each match ends with a short epilogue in which the losing team must get to a dropship for extraction – giving them the opportunity to gain extra Exp (This mechanic is built around empowering the losing team, on the few occasions I made it to the dropship I felt so pumped up with adrenaline for the next match). The epilogue drastically changes the matches dynamic, from fast paced objective based games, into tense games of cat and mouse which engender a sense of camaraderie, during one memorable extraction two of my teammates held off the enemies with their Titans – effectively sacrificing themselves – so that we could escape.

Titanfall is the best compettative shooter this year (and my personal favourite since Crysis 2). It’s the perfectly balenced combat – in which everything feels extremely powerful and uniquely vulnerable, relying on skill as opposed to which player has the best weapon – and innovative game design (that combines the familiar trappings of an FPS with expanded gameplay opportunities for player creativity) that led to my rediscovery of fun within competition, and that is perhaps Titanfall’s greatest achievement.

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DLC Review

DLC Review-Valiant Hearts: The Great War

ValiantHearts2

Ubisoft Montpellier’s exploration of the First World War (a setting not often explored in the medium) focuses on the human conflict, weaving a multi-stranded narrative based on actual letters from the front. The highlight of this downloadable title is the audio and visual design. With gameplay reminiscent of point and click adventure games, Valiant Hearts combines Historical documentary with the swashbuckling adventure of Indiana Jones. While the juxtoposition of the lightheartedness serves to give the emotional moments more impact, the humour does sometimes feel at odds with the games subject matter.

The third title to use the Ubi art engine, Valiant Hearts striking 2D animated aesthetic looks like a moving comic book (rather than the Child of Light’s watercolour visual design or Rayman Origins Cartoon style),  even using on screen panels to highlight the action. The first of these titles to use multiple planes, the environments are full of minutiae that really brings them to life- civilians fleeing falling bombs in the background or soldiers charging across no-man’s land- transitioning into buildings (revealing a cutaway of the inside) or moving from foreground to background is seamless and feels like moving between the sets of a theatre production. The beautiful environments perfectly reflect the tone of the game (from the comedic sight of a French Officer shouting orders to his troops in his breeches after you’ve stolen his uniform, to the terror and carnage as as your platoon attempts to tale an enemy position). From  the well known battles of The Somme and Passchendaele to lesser known events such as the Taxis of the Marne, Valiant Hearts makes the events of the First World War accessible (Each chapter has a number of information cards- like you may find in a museum-  that expand on the events depicted in the game, illustrated with real photographs from the war these help ground the game in reality).

The games soundtrack is comprised entirely of instrumental pieces, using both original tracks and music from the period. Daniel Teper’s beautiful yet melancholy title track ‘Little Trinketry’ is a pino composition with string accompaniment that’s indicative of the soundtracks overall tone. There are more upbeat pieces, in one memorable sequence (that can’t fail to make you smile) the player has to dodge falling bombs and roadblocks in a taxi in time with ‘The Infernal Gallop’ from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (the music most often associated with the Can Can). The exceptional sound design combines the bombastic (the thunderous noise of shells falling on the battlefield and the chatter of machinegun fire wouldn’t seem out of place in Call of Duty) with more nuanced audio design- the music that plays when sucessfully completing a puzzle produces a Pavlovian response in the player. The developers decision to use spoken dialogue sparingly works incredibly well and because of this the voice acting has a much greater impact. Communicating through animated thought bubbles (talking to a guard who blocks your path a bottle of wine appears above his head as an indication of how to proceed), each character expresses themselves through their animated body language and the tone of their vocal expressions; a gruff shout of anger from a commanding officer, or a heartfelt thank you from a supposed enemy. Most impressive is the sense of  personality that’s conveyed by characters that may only have a few minutes of screen time.

Valiant Heart’s follows the lives of four characters as their paths intersect throughout the course of the First World War. Email and his Son in-law Karl find their family torn apart as Karl is deported and Emil conscripted with the outbreak of war (caught on opposite sides of the conflict). Freddie, an American soldier drawn into the war by his desire for revenge and Anna, a young woman searching for her father. The colourful and stylised visual design belies a game that doesn’t pull any emotional punches. Split into four chapters (each ending with a cliffhanger styled after early adventure serials), Valiant Hearts character driven narrative explores the human cost of war- both on the battlefield and on those left behind. The narrative missteps in its cartoonish portrayal of the games “villain” Baron Von Dorf (a perfect example of Ludonarrative dissonance). More reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons than the balenced picture of the conflict presented throughout the rest of the game, adhering to gaming archetypes to provide the player with Boss fights.

The majority of the gameplay centres on finding various interpretations of keys for various interpretations of doors in the classic adventure game manner. Such is the variety over the course of the six to seven hours it takes to complete the game, I was always excited to see what came next. The enjoyable puzzles have a well balenced pitch, rarely providing frustration. For those who need it the game offers a hint system (helpfully delivered by homing Pigeon). Partially revealing the answer to a puzzle, this mechanic has a timed cooldown and for experienced players the harder difficulty setting removes this feature. The developers translation of familiar mechanics from other games onto a 2D plane provides a fresh take on the military genre. A side scrolling vehicle section where the player pilots a tank, emphasises the need to protect your troops from enemy fire as well as provide offensive support. I was equally impressed by the games unexpected transition to stealth gameplay (in one memorable moment during an escape from a POW camp, moving through a cornfield the player has to carry a scarecrow- using it as portable cover, hiding behind it when patrols search the nearby area). One of my favourite moments sees Emile tasked with destroying a German barrage which has halted another characters progress (in homage to modern First Person Shooters). Making your way to the artillery gun, the player has to find a way to manually load the huge shell. Lookingthrough the viewfinder Freddie acts as a spotter directing your shots over the radio (his instructions appearing as pictures you have to match with the landscape). It’s one of those moments where gameplay and design work hand in hand. Adding levity are music chapters a la Rayman Origins. The game uses a number of rhythm based mini-games, most prominent is a Guitar Hero inspired mechanic when Anna treats the wounded (though surprisingly tense, it feels overused). Rayman Origins and Child of Light embraced their respective genres (Rayman Origins is arguably one of the most pure platforming experiences), but it’s bold inclusions like these that help Valiant Hearts break away from that of classic side scrolling gameplay.

Final Verdict:

8.0

Opinion

Cuphead: The Indie title that stole E3 (and my heart)

Cuphead

With what was- for me- a lacklustre showing at E3 this year, MDHR Studio’s indie title Cuphead (announced during Microsoft’s E3 press conference) transported me back to my childhood and instantly captured my imagination.

Described as a run ‘n’ gun and fighting game hybrid, Cuphead has been in development since 2010 by the small five-man development team at Canadian MDHR Studio. Not to be released till 2015; this Xbox One and Steam exclusive combines the animation style of 1930’s cartoons-complete with Jazz accompaniment- with 2D shooters from the 16-bit era of gaming, with the developers themselves citing Kenji inafune’s Mega Man and the Contra series as influences.

The beautifully detailed hand drawn aesthetic- with slightly washed out Backgrounds and lo-fi monitor scan lines to recreate the appearance of a cathode ray tube television-instantly brings to mind cartoons like Popeye and Bettie Boop. While the games playable over-world is a nod to classic Nintendo games like Super Mario World and The legend of Zelda, the sidescrolling gameplay is more of a boss-rush than in the traditional run ‘n’ gun style. Foregoing the classic grunts to focus on 1 on 1 fights.

You can watch the E3 trailer for the game here and while I still have questions about the validity of the gameplay and whether the focus on boss fights could lead to fatigue (even with the addition of platforming and Shmup levels), this title is already one of my most anticipated of 2015.

 

CGGR: Dead Space

Current Generation Game Review: Dead Space

Released in October 2008 across all platforms, Dead Space- developed by EA Redwood Shore- is one of the few survival horror IP’s to emanate from this console generation. Characterised by deep world building, Dead Space’s pastiche to Sci-Fi horror draws on everything from Event Horizon to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The cloying atmosphere and superb pacing sets it apart from its peers, while innovative gameplay and visceral combat breathe new life into a well trodden genre.

In space no-one can hear you scream:

Dead Space environment concept art

The utilitarian industrial art design of the USG Ishimura (influenced by Ron Cobb’s work on Alien) encapsulates the developers combined dystopic vision of 2414. While there are more sterile environments- all sleek lines and phosphorescent white- they feel cold and serve to emphasise the player’s isolation. Minutiae in the environments offer intriguing insights into the lives of the ships inhabitants (the sustainable vegetable gardens in hydroponics speak to the mentality of a species too late to adapt these techniques to an already depleted homeworld), subtly drawing the players attention to the juxtaposition of these signs of life and the inherent emptiness creates an oppressive atmosphere which underscores the experience. Distinct level design; from the game’s opening as the transport shuttle approaches the Ishimura (beautifully framed by the planet it hangs ominously in its orbit, the planets ‘cork’ still tethered to the ship) to the tight claustrophobic interior corridors convey an imposing sense of scale. The clean UI leads to a greater sense of immersion, with all of the pertinent information built into the characters rig. The spine represents the player’s health bar, while real time 3D projections are used to explore the map and inventory (a perfect example of design marrying gameplay and fiction). The Necromorphs design can be seen in the recombinant Alien life form of John Carpenters: The Thing- all flailing limbs and necrotic flesh. Their designs feel consistently innovative in a genre saturated with competing interpretations of “undead” enemies (culminating with the Leviathan, one of my favourite boss encounters of this generation that’s akin to fighting inside a giant washing machine).

The exceptional sound design perfectly complements the industrial aesthetic with a sparse instrumental score (composed by Jason Graves), the game relies more on ambient noise to set the tone- the slow turning of a ventilation fan or the clanging of pipes somewhere just out of sight. It’s the restraint shown in the audio design that creates the greatest impact; sometimes the player will go for prolonged periods in total silence creating a palpable sense of tension. While I feel it was a mistake to not give the main character a voice (a silent protagonist doesn’t gel with the games narrative) the excellent voice acting- especially the work of Peter Mensah as Sgt Zach Hammond and Tonantzin Carmelo as Kendra Daniels – really helps to get players invested in these characters from the opening moments, I only wish these interesting characters had been developed further (with what I felt to be anaemic in-game dialogue, that leaves the player wanting more).

‘Days since last accident: 0’

USG Ishimura

Hundreds of years in the future mankind has exhausted all of Earth’s natural resources.  In order to survive, humanity has mastered space travel and developed a process known as planet cracking (Whereby a celestial body is split into pieces and its minerals are strip-mined and melted, returning the by-products to Earth). On a routine mining operation all contact is lost with the largest of these planet cracking vessels, the USG Ishimura. Players take on the role of systems engineer Issac Clarke; part of a maintenance team dispatched to investigate and repair the communication blackout, with a vested interest in the safety of one of the Ishimura’s crew.

Dead Space immerses players in the games narrative through its striking facial animations (which still stand out today) and seamless presentation. Using ingame cutscenes and real time video- via Issac’s riglink- to convey the story, the game maintains a constant sense of urgency through player agency. The narrative threads are mainly explored through audio logs and text files (with ingame dialogue and character interactions also fleshing out the plot), these documents offer an insight into life on board the Ishimura (as well as expanding on the games unique sci-fi setting) providing a stark contrast to what players find. The only problem with this approach to storytelling is the occasional overlap between an audio log and a player triggered event, more importantly though Issac’s lack of an emotional response to situations leads to a disconnect between the player and the narrative.

Written by Anthony Johnson (with art by Ben Templesmith), publisher Electronic Arts released the Dead Space motion comic as a supplement to the games campaign. Released in weekly instalments, the six episodes take place shortly before the game focusing on the mining colony of Ageis VII.  The well written narrative (which subtly shifts from thriller to psychological horror) opens with a startling vidlog before taking it’s time to develop both characters and setting by exploring the day to day lives of the miners, gradually introducing concepts like planet cracking and Unitology. P-SEC (Planet side security) officer Abraham Neumann, Dr Tom Sciarello and Capt Benjamin Mathius are all referenced to in logs aboard the Ishimura creating a wonderful sense of continuity between the two mediums. This brief series is one of the best pieces companion pieces I’ve seen and is single handedly responsible for my initial interest in the game, I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to get into Dead Space.

Cut off their limbs:

Dead Space dismemberment

This bloody epitaph scrawled on a wall encapsulates Dead Space’s unique mechanic of ‘strategic dismemberment’. By removing the “aim for the head” gameplay ingrained in action games (Necromorphs can only be killed by removing their limbs) it forces players to re-evaluate how they play. Using a control scheme that will be familiar to anyone that’s played Resident Evil 4 (or any subsequent third person action game) Dead Space builds on these core mechanics. Introducing the ability to move and shoot combat is more frenetic (allowing for faster and more aggressive enemies); when aiming, the camera pans in close over the characters shoulder immersing the player in the action and allowing for greater accuracy. Built into the rigs are two other repurposed mining tools (which are used in the games simple puzzles). Kinesis enables players to move heavy objects which can then be thrown at enemies turning any environmental object into a weapon, even a dead Necromorphs limb (a mechanic that was greatly refined in the sequel). And stasis, which is used to slow down fast-moving objects (represented by a finite meter next to the rigs spine). The rigs navigation tool (which can be used at any time by pressing R3) streamlines the gameplay experience reducing the amount of unnecessary backtracking. The developers have designed the interface to reduce the amount of time players spend in menus; this ethos is reflected in the weapons holographic ammo counters and the seamless load times (hidden behind door opening sequences).

The zero gravity gameplay captures mankind fragility when faced with the vastness of Space. These ethereal sections juxtapose some of the most original gameplay I’d seen this generation with terrifying audio and visual presentation. The central mechanic draws on the centrifuge in 2001: a Space odyssey and Robert Capa’s Space jump in the sci-fi thriller Sunshine, allowing players to walk on a vertical plane. The washed out colour palette highlights the games excellent lighting effects, it feels as though light is being drawn out of the environments. Entering the void the muted silence of the vacuum removes one of the player’s senses conveying the disorientation and claustrophobia in the rig. As blast doors open into these decompressed sections of the vessel you can see the oxygen rushing out (a great homage to the airlock scene at the end of Aliens and accompanied by the same howling audio design), having to rely on the limited air supply in the rig (represented by a holographic timer) it brings the survival gameplay to the fore.

Final Verdict:

Dead Space is a masterful exercise in tension that perfectly marries horror and action, only marred by disappointing character development. While the sequels refine and build upon the core mechanics, this leads to greater focus on action (being able to control Issac in zero gravity with thrusters removes that feeling of helplessness) detracting from the original game. Standing out from its competitors in almost every way, Dead Space has stayed with me even six years later.

8.5/10

Opinion

Coming back to the fold, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Call of Duty-advanced warfighter

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of my favourite FPS games of all time, with a singleplayer campaign and multiplayer that redefined console shooters. But after three more yearly iterations I felt thoroughly fatigued with a franchise whose gameplay had rapidly begun to stagnate. I haven’t purchased a Call of Duty game since Black Ops (Especially after playing through the lacklustre campaign of Modern Warfare 3), so what is it about the newest entry in the series that has me thinking about coming back into the fold?

Developed by Sledgehammer games for the PS4 and X-Box one (with the last-gen versions being handed to an as yet unspecified developer) and running on a brand new engine (Even from the reveal trailer the game looks gorgeous, with beautiful lighting effects and some of the most detailed facial animations I’ve seen) the first truly next-gen Call of Duty game takes the series into the near future. Set in 2054, the games plausible Sci-Fi setting imagines a world where wars are fought solely by PMC’s (Private Military Corporations) and poses the question what would happen if PMC’s started following their own orders? (An engaging topic that’s explored in an excellent documentary advertising the reveal of the game, which you can watch here). With Kevin Spacey and Troy Baker providing voice work for the project, I can only hope this means there will be a greater focus on both plot and character development.

I think the most exciting aspect of the futuristic setting is the technology that’s on display in the reveal trailer (which can be watched here). First and foremost is the Elysium-esk exoskeleton. What’s most interesting is the meaningful impact this could have on gameplay, with the exo-suit providing the player with a new level of mobility (whether it’s been designed as a rival to the parkour in Titanfall or will function more like the Nanosuit in Crysis-enhancing the players jumping ability and strength-remains to be seen). Players will also be able to upgrade the exoskeleton combining RPG elements into Call of Duty for the first time. The trailer also hints at other technologies that exist in 2054, scenes show soldiers using cloaking devices as well as portable cover and it will be interesting to see just how much of this can be utilised by the player in-game. Informed by the robotic concept art of Aaron Beck, the ethos of the games striking visual design combines the familiar with hi-tech industrial influences; nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of the walking tanks and the soldier’s exo-suits.

While this post is only based on my first impressions of the game from the reveal trailer; the games aesthetic, setting and story has already captured my imagination. The question remains though, can Sledgehammer games reinvigorate the singleplayer campaign and create a multiplayer suite to rival that of Titanfall? (What I see as being the most original multiplayer experience around). I for one an cautiously optimistic.

CRGR- Batman: Arkham Origins

Current Release Game Review- Batman: Arkham Origins

Batman: Arkham Origins serves as a prequel to developer Rocksteady’s Arkham series. Handing over the reins to new developer-Warner Bros Games Montreal- brings a new lease of life to the franchise; with an engaging narrative that feels right of a Batman graphic novel, a more robust detective mode and amazing set piece boss encounters (that are some of the most challenging in recent memory). Unfortunately the game is hampered by the mechanics imposed by previous entries in the series and a reliance on free flow combat over innovative gameplay. 

T’was the night before Christmas:

Batman: Arkham Origins Artworks & Konzeptgrafiken

Batman: Arkham Origins uses the games Christmas setting to great effect; Christmas lights illuminate the boulevards, Christmas trees decorate shop windows and as you ride in an elevator Jingle bells plays over the speakers. It’s very thematic and also helps to differentiate itself from the previous entries (Though I wish more had been done with the weather effects, strong winds blow in flurries of snow. But silently taking down enemies as a snowstorm rages would have made for an interesting set piece). The game looks great, showcasing much sharper graphics (with an impressive draw distance, I never once experienced pop-in). Gotham city is larger than in earlier games encompassing two islands (joined by the pioneer bridge), with seven distinct districts. The industrial district combines familiar locations-like the Sionis steel mill-while introducing new ones like The Final Offer (a run-aground ship serving as The Penguins base of operations), rundown warehouses and cranes dominate the landscape while the Diamond district gleams with storefronts and towering skyscrapers that house the rich of Gotham. The developers use the Neo-Gothic architecture to unify the visual design (placing the look of the game somewhere between the gritty realism of Christopher Nolan’s films and the more overt Arkham City). While there are a few visual inconsistencies (most notably Shiva’s’ character model looks significantly less detailed), the highlight of the visual design is the beautifully rendered and highly detailed character models that reflect the more grounded ethos of the games design. Warner Bros Games Montreal introduce new villains from Batman’s rogues gallery that mirror his physicality. The graceful and efficient attacks of Deathstroke (whose armour and weapons deteriorate as you battle) and the quick and lithe movements of Copperhead are perfectly conveyed through the games superb animations.

The voice acting in Batman: Arkham Origins is uniformly great. The stand-out performance is Roger Craig Smith in the title role, perfectly conveying a younger and more inexperienced Batman whose emotions break through his usually calm veneer. Brian Bloom portrays Black Mask with refined menace and Troy Baker adds a sense of dynamism to The Joker (While Nolan North’s portrayal of The Penguin doesn’t match the other excellent voice work, the character is more in keeping with the tone of the game than in the previous entry), everyone- from main characters like Deathstroke (voiced by Mark Rolston) to the supporting cast like Captain Gordon- add to the immersive audio presentation. The soundtrack is equally excellent. A brooding orchestral score (that recalls Hans Zimmer’s work in Batman Returns), it perfectly captures the darker tone of the narrative. The track ‘The night before Christmas’ (one of my favourite tracks in the game) uses sleigh bells to evoke connotations to classic Christmas carols: juxtaposed against the string instruments, church bells and cymbals the track feels decidedly ominous. Unfortunately not all of the music is as strong. Due to the demanding nature of the gameplay during boss battles, tracks like ‘Deathstroke’ and ‘Copperhead’ tend to fade into the background (I did appreciate how each of the tracks reflected an aspect of the character, Deathstroke’s music is very precise and regimented).

Batman year two:

batman year 1

Written by Corey May and Michael Wendschuh, the story perfectly captures the ethos of the graphic novels evoking comparisons to Jeph Loeb or Scott Snyder and features some of the strongest writing in a Batman game to date. Set on Christmas Eve during Batman’s second year in Gotham the story focuses on Black Mask as he attempts to consolidate the remaining Mob forces in Gotham and take over organised crime in the city. A taut detective thriller, the story is the highlight of the game.

This strong narrative is somewhat absent from the disappointing side missions, as is the inventive and fun gameplay that characterised the side missions in Arkham City. Gone are the engaging minigames, showcased best in “Cold Call Killer”.  Players had to answer ringing payphones across Gotham and trace the calls (via a clever mini-game) as Victor Zasaz taunts the player. This particular side mission ends with a tense stealth segment, where if you’re spotted Zasaz will kill his hostages. This highlights how a range of gameplay mechanics can combine to create a tense and interesting storyline. Not all the side missions in Arkham City were this good; but unfortunately none of them in this prequel reach the same high points either. The most disappointing aspect has to be the anticlimactic boss battle with Lady Shiva, reducing her attack patterns to those of basic enemy types after the amazing set piece boss battles in the main campaign comes across as lazy. Missed opportunities abound, except for a brief cameo near the beginning of the game Calendar Man (who I expected to be a key figure) is completely forgotten. The developers could have further utilised the games thematic setting, introducing a side story where players discovered grisly Christmas tableaus across the city until you can track him down. Missions that tested something other than the player’s combat skills would have broken up the repetitiveness of the gameplay. Perhaps an ariel chase across Gotham’s rooftops utilising the excellent grapple and gliding mechanics as you attempt to catch Man-bat. The Riddler returns- under the new guise of Enigma- using his intellect to hold Gotham to ransom with blackmail. While I prefer the excellent riddles from Arkham Asylam, these puzzles are still compelling (many of them requiring specific equipment to complete them, much like in the Metroid franchise); it’s just a shame that some of the puzzles reuse assets from Arkham City.

One night to kill the Bat:

Deathstroke concept art

The genre defining combat and stealth of Batman: Arkham Asylum returns. Combat still feels as weighty and satisfying as ever, players use the square button to land blows on opponents chaining together attacks to increase the combo meter and using triangle when prompted to counter enemies attacks (Countering has been tweaked and using the triangle button to counter now needs far more precision than before lending the game a greater sense of challenge). Using gadgets during combat you can momentarily stun enemies with your Batarang or separate a group by using your Batclaw (switching between gadgets is simple, mapped to the D-pad). There are some new enemy types that make for an interesting new dynamic to fights- having to counter them multiple times before you break their defence- but overall this doesn’t change combat. The standout moments come from the superb boss battles which perfectly put all of your skills and reflexes to the test. Even on the normal difficulty setting I found these battles challenging (I died a number of times before I beat each boss), but never unfair. A lot of game developers could learn from the examples In Arkham Origins that boss fights don’t just have to be about spectacle, that you can create a boss fight that combines amazing visual production with great gameplay. The only problem I had with these battles was the restrictiveness of the environments, this made them feel a lot like arena battles whereas id have preferred to see a multi stage boss or one that required you to move around the environment (like the CG trailer implied), maybe even taking on two bosses at the same time.

Players use detective mode by pressing L1, this highlights enemies and useful objects in the environment . The biggest addition to the gameplay is the use of detective mode during key story moments, when examining crime scenes Batman can build a reconstruction of events based on the evidence he finds (this resembles Remember Me’s memory manipulation, with players able to scrub backwards and forwards through the crime to look for additional clues. The most memorable moment in the game for me came about a third of the way through when Batman has to decipher a crime scene at Black Masks safe house. With an amazing resolution, this player interaction drives the plot forward, helping the player feel more engaged with the story (so much so I found it difficult to put my controller down). While I appreciate the developers attempts to make players feel like a detective (even setting a number of side missions where the player has to solve a series of murders with this new mechanic), gathering evidence needs to be more involving than holding down the X button (more in line with L.A. Noire or Condemned: criminal origins), players could use a blacklight to locate fingerprints and pick up and manipulate objects in real time to find clues.

Players traverse Gotham by grappling from building to building with the R1 button and glide by holding X, while this feels as quick and responsive as ever the incorporation of a quick travel system (using the Batwing) is my favourite addition to the gameplay (even requiring players to tackle a series of puzzles to allow you to access each of the districts, these are comparable to the Radio Towers in Far Cry Three).

Multiplayer:

Batman-Arkham-Origins multiplayer 2

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game for me was the fun and addictive multiplayer. Developed independently by English studio Splash Damage the multiplayer focuses on a three sided conflict, casting players as one of the Jokers Thugs, a mercenary working for Bane or Batman. This allows the developers to integrate both the mechanics of a third person shooter and the stealth based gameplay from the campaign. The one game mode available at launch-Invisible Predator- is a team based mode for a total of eight players that takes place on one of the four available maps. Matches last up to fifteen minutes as two teams of three attempt to capture and hold various points across the map, while reducing each other’s reinforcements (shown at the top of the screen) to zero. Batman on the other hand wins by completely filling his intimidation meter; done so by stealthily taking down enemies (this meter is reduced if he dies). The dynamic between the three teams is great and the mechanics work fluidly together, producing a multiplayer mode that feels fresh and original.

Following the current trend of persistent unlocks, players gain experience for completing objectives (as well as being awarded bonuses for keeping your captain alive, getting a killstreak or winning a match). This Experience increases your overall level; unlocking new weapons, gear and customisation options. Using in game currency you can buy consumable items from the Penguin’s black market; these act as one-time-use stat or bonus boosts that reduce damage taken from headshots or increase the total amount of experience you gain at the end of a match. It’s an interesting way to introduce perks to your game without them drastically altering the playstyle (in the same way that Titanfall is using burn cards). The third person shooting mechanics will feel very familiar to any fan of the genre. L1 brings the camera in behind you giving you more accuracy when aiming (but restricting your view making you less able to watch your surroundings adding a sense of tension to the hunter/hunted dichotomy of the multiplayer), while R1 fires you weapon. R2 uses grenades (more of which can be picked up on the maps with helpful ammo drops at various points throughout a match), triangle swaps your weapon, Circle snaps you into cover (where you can blindfire or aim) and holding X lets you sprint (this is a limited function shown by a grey bar on the bottom left of the screen) while double tapping allows you to evade as well as being used to interact with the environment. These core mechanics feel alot tighter than in the Tomb Raider multiplayer. Playing as Batman the mechanics are identical to the single player campaign, R1 grapples to a gargoyle, you use the D-pad to select your gadgets and L2 to enter Detective mode. One of the main draws of the multiplayer is being able to play as Bane and The Joker, these characters are unlocked at a certain point throughout a match when a number of criteria have been met. Both teams are funnelled to the same point on the map (the first player there assumes direct control of them) emphasising the need to work together. With a large amount of HP and powerful weapons playing as one of these two characters feels empowering and they can drastically alter the outcome of a match. Using in game currency you can buy consumable items from the Penguin’s black market, these act as one time use stat or bonus boosts that reduce damage taken from headshots or increase the total amount of experience you gain at the end of a match.

Because each gang level independently I think the multiplayer would have felt more engaging if players had to choose one faction to persist with (like MAG) rather than switching between them each round, fostering a greater sense of community. My only concern is the sustainability of the community and how long the servers will stay populated after the games release.

Final Thoughts:

The perfect game for Christmas, while the strong writing and narrative make this the best entry in the series it also conversely helps to highlight the anaemic nature of the gameplay. With a wealth of in-game content and a fun and original multiplayer component it’s the developer’s over-reliance on Rocksteady’s blueprint that ultimately leaves the player with a sense of dissatisfaction.

7/10

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“Come on you apes! Do you want to live forever” – Helldivers; how Sony is redefining the isometric shooter.

Helldivers-spaceship

Heavily influenced by Robert. A. Heinlein’s novel ‘Starship Troopers’, this Playstation exclusive- first announced at Gamescom- is developed by Stockholm based Arrowhead studios (the creators of PC title Magicka). Informed by classic twin stick shooter franchises like Contra and Metal Slug, Helldivers incorporates familiar mechanics from other franchises to produce a new gameplay experience.

Players are placed into the role of an elite military unit known as a Helldiver (comparable to Halo’s ODST), set in a future dystopia where Earth is ruled by a managed democracy and Mankind fights for its very existence (this aspect of the narrative directly informs the games unique dynamic difficulty). The isometric design is reminiscent of last year’s Shadowrun Returns; but rather than the neo-noir cyber punk aesthetic, Helldivers opts for the more industrial militaristic look of 1980’s Science fiction (The ships are evocative of the U.S.S Sulaco from Aliens). The procedurally generated environments run the gamut; from barren wastes where the deep and driving snow can slow your characters movement to white hot desert planets their surface cracked and scorched by the sun, with dynamic day and night missions the bright colour palette contrasts with the gun-metal grey of the Helldivers making these worlds feel even more foreign.

From your ship- hovering ominously over a planet- players explore the available missions through a Mass Effect style galaxy map. Almost roguelike in their structure missions require players to complete a number of procedurally generated objectives before extracting, with no checkpoints or do-overs this adds a sense of weight to your actions. Much like in modern FPS games, here you can kit out your Helldiver with your preferred loadout of: weapons, perks and stratagems (more of which are persistently unlocked as you level up your character) before dropping in from orbit (players can actively choose their dropzone). Played cooperatively with up to three other players, Helldivers is the first title I’ve seen to really promote cross-play (available on all three of Sony’s gaming devices), while at the same time it heralds the return of couch co-op (With the prevalence of online multiplayer there’s a sense of nostalgia that comes with playing games split screen with friends next to you and It’s encouraging to see a developer fostering that communal experience) to which the inherent challenge of the game seems a natural fit. The constant threat of friendly fire on the chaotic battlefield (which much like playing hardcore mode in call of duty cannot be turned off) necessitates teamwork. Death can come from anywhere; supply drops can crush players unlucky enough to be caught underneath them (something anyone whose recently played Titanfall will be familiar with), even friendly equipment can pose a threat (turrets can’t distinguish between you or an enemy should you walk in front of them). To help balance this players are locked onto the same screen (even when playing on a vita) allowing for greater coordination and less “accidents”. This sense of tension is compounded by the pressure to perform manual reloads and call in stratagems in the heat of battle. Stratagems- think Call of Duty’s care packages- range from calling in extra ammunition or reinforcements to requesting heavy ordinance or a unwieldy but powerful mech (these are done through a complex series of inputs on the D-pad comparable to pulling off moves in fighting games). Like Medal of Honour Warfighter’s ‘global war’ meta game, each mission feeds into an overarching intergalactic war which takes place over a two month period. If the community manages to pull together and survive then the difficulty for everyone will rise and the war begins anew, should they fail the difficulty will drop (this is an exciting new way to handle difficulty in games that I certainly haven’t seen before).

helldivers-mecha

Destined to become a cult hit amongst its community, Helldivers is a rich homage to the shooter genre but with modern sensibilities and I can’t wait to play it when it releases sometime this summer.